Posts Tagged ‘Business English’

Does BEC do the Business?

March 5, 2012 4 comments

I got in trouble last week. I’ve been sharing a learner in a group ‘young business’ class with a colleague doing one to one preparation for BEC higher.

On Thursday, the colleague came to find me with a rather large bone he had to pick. In a practice test, the learner had constantly tried to use ‘you needn’t have’ to discuss mistakes made in a project. When corrected to ‘you shouldn’t have’ the learner replied ‘Ed said ‘should’ is bad and to use ‘need to’ instead’.

He’s right, I had. Of course, the context was different. I was looking at using modals to delegate and give responsibility and in that context, the order like quality of ‘you should call the suppliers as soon as possible’ is quite rare in business speech as managers are often trained to leave orders implied, suggest them or make requests.

Therefore, phrases expressing collaborative necessity followed by requests are much more common such as: ‘we need to call the suppliers as soon as possible, could you take care of it?’

A valuable lesson for me is that I need to demonstrate the context more carefully and illustrate the limitations of the language

However, when discussing the use of ‘shouldn’t have’ to give feedback I claimed that no decent manager would use even a mildly directive phrase such as ‘you should/shouldn’t have’. They would be much more likely to make weak suggestions using something like: ‘wouldn’t it have been better to..?’ or ‘couldn’t you have thought about…?’

That is, if they were to dwell on the past. The fact is, most international management training programmes suggest that negative feedback should take the form of future advice, making something like ‘so, going forward, we need to think about….’ The most likely way the phrase would be delivered.

Although my colleague agreed, he still pulled a face. He’s a very senior BEC examiner and he was concerned that language like that doesn’t fit the BEC mark scheme. I find that extremely disconcerting.

This is the way managers talk, critical language has been removed from their lexicon by countless books and training programmes. If BEC is encouraging language use that does not reflect corporate discourse, does it do the business?


well, yes I get your point, but…

August 15, 2011 2 comments

I know what you’re saying, I’ve read ‘getting to yes’ but if you said that in Russia, nobody would notice.


So, what were we studying?

It was a lesson on giving feedback and the class had been experimenting with ‘the sandwich technique’.

We opened out the discussion, looking at whether the senior managers comprising the class used this technique in their L1. They all agreed they did but were all uncomfortable with doing so in English.

I pushed a little deeper and another Russian, who happened to live in France, said that it just seemed like too much. If performance is bad, why not say so, rather than it’s ‘not completely satisfactory’. Then an Italian agreed, ‘not satisfactory’ is ok but ‘not completely satisfactory’ that’s just lying.

In response, I found myself discussing British culture, understatement and all kinds of things. They were interested and seemed to understand but did this mini rebellion mean my carefully prepared lesson would fail?

Does this mean that the language isn’t memorable? I love books like ’getting to yes’ and am a big fan of management coaching. My lessons revolve around turning these ideas into language training materials.

However, as an Anglo Saxon, I read and teach the Anglo Saxon way of doing things. There’s a worry that, as learner worldview doesn’t match mine, it won’t go in.

To avoid this, the next stage is too bring in pragmatics, talking about perception and understanding from a cultural point of view. But, if you go too far down this road, will learners recognise it as learning?

Management Speak

May 26, 2011 2 comments

I had an amazing insight into the differences between management philosophies in different countries today. The group contained a Russian lawyer, a French tax consultant and a Danish oil engineer, all managing at a senior level. The target language was modals, specifically you must, you have to, we must, we have to and we need to. We did a listening exercise focussing on different managers using the various modals to give directions and then discussed which phrases were most likely to result in:

1. Task achievement and strengthened relationships

2. Task achievement and weakened relationships

3. Task failure or subversion

Both the Russian and the Frenchwoman agreed you have to was the best phrase to get results. Must was viewed as too strong and need to too weak. Both could not see the point of saying we stating “but we are not going to do it, you’ are” However much I argued, they wouldn’t buy it, we was a pointless thing to say.They also seemed confused when I tried to explain that saying you have to might upset people.

Fortunately the Dane was on my side, agreeing the we need to  was the most appropriate, stressing the co-operative nature of any business situation and strengthening personal relationships. The other two scoffed, maintaining that the relationship, when giving direction, was less important than the task and it didn’t matter how people felt.


The Russian and French learners were also sceptical of my comment that must and have to are pretty much the same, they both maintained that must was stronger. Then the Dane asked “aren’t all the phrases ok if you use we? I gave up and we moved onto a simulation; delegating a task. Unsurprisingly the above opinions were reflected in the language used.

Reflecting on this led me to think of Hofstedde’s ‘power distance’ relationships. Is it a coincidence that the high power distance cultures thought it fine to be extremely directive and the low power distance cultures felt a need to show solidarity in their direction?

And a final point, does this explain why the Frenchwoman’s most difficult team member is Australian (a very low power distance culture). I’ll keep digging!

Does accuracy add value?

May 21, 2011 3 comments

Having politely explained, using a combination of stuttering English and hand gestures, why he couldn’t place an order, Mr Falconio gently moved his German colleague towards the door. As he did this, he stopped, looked Jochim directly in the eye and congratulated him on his perfect use of the past semi modal verb ‘would need to’. On the long flight home, Jochim was left reflecting on the 5000 Euros he had spent on English classes, his inability to complete the sale and his failure to meet his target for the third month in a row. His boss was going to be mad, again!

This, of course, is a fictional (and farcical) account but it raises important questions about what we do in our ESP and business English classes. It’s clear that Jochim’s lessons had a strong focus on accuracy and, no doubt like most learners, he was happy with this as grammatical accuracy shows that one really ‘knows’ a language. This focus probably ticked the teacher’s boxes too as a focus on accuracy is a satisfying and relatively easy way to quantify the learner’s progress and your own teaching.

However, despite all his English lessons, Jochim still can’t close a deal in English. If his classes had focussed on the process of making a sale, how this is done in German and how this differs to English, would he still be finding it so difficult to close international deals?

Yesterday, I observed one of the best lessons I’ve ever seen. The two learners needed English for finance and the trainer had huge amounts of experience in finance and corporate language training, The lesson was high quality in all areas except one; error correction. This was very lean – over the hour I observed, there were three instances of correction – and sporadic – one phonological, one grammar and one collocation correction. In feedback, I asked why there had been such lean correction and feedback? .

Here’s the trainer’s answer:

‘Well, I understand where you’re coming from but, when you noticed mistakes, particularly grammar, did you still understand?’ ‘Yes’, I replied. ‘What about the things I did correct?’ He went on to ask. ‘Well, yes the phonological errors confused me, but the collocation was OK, I understood’ I replied. ‘Yes, you’re right, but it was a financial term, should a financial director use ‘OK’ financial language, or ‘exact’ financial language?’.

The trainer then went on to explain his three reasons for correction:

– Accuracy
– Intelligibility
– Irritation

For him, accuracy is the weakest reason to correct, particularly when learners rarely speak to English native speakers. The only justification for error correction is when what is said causes confusion or, like the old classics ‘I am agree’ or ‘my English is not well’, grates the nerves of the listener like fingernails on a blackboard.

I’m convinced that the majority of trainers would agree with this but how many of us are brave enough to act on this fact in the classroom. In my lessons, I have a tendency to correct everything. There’s certain things I can let go, articles went a long time ago and I’m slowly giving up on third person ‘s’. But certain things, like the German love of putting the frequency adverb in the middle of the sentence, I can’t let pass. It doesn’t affect intelligibility, it’s actually kind of cute, not irritating but I must correct it. Why? Because it’s wrong!

This raises two further questions:

– How will learners feel about lean correction?
– If we don’t correct language, what should we correct?

In answer to the first question, learners regularly mention a desire for thorough ‘feedback’. When digging deeper, their impression of feedback almost always seems to be ‘accuracy’, they’re obsessed with it. Feedback rules my school and many freelancers would be uncomfortable with reducing error correction because, in their opinion, it’s important to them getting good feedback. However, we should be braver and confront our learners with the question ‘how does better grammar help you do your job’? As Steve Flinders said, ‘it’s like the learners have hijacked the agenda’, let’s take it back

Considering Jochim again. I wonder if his teacher had decided focus on his ability to explain and persuade in English, would he have so much trouble closing a deal? If feedback focussed on how convincing or persuasive he was when presenting features and benefits, I’m sure his boss would not be shouting at him on Monday.

I know in my own classes, this form of feedback takes place but not enough and unfortunately, in 99% of the lessons I observe, it NEVER happens.

If feedback focusses on job rather than language performance more, I’m positive learners would be better served, add more value to their organisation and ultimately say ‘I am agree with my teacher, accuracy doesn’t matter, they understand’.

Does our language or our background determine how we speak?

May 14, 2011 2 comments

This week, I’ve been exploring what causes communication problems, in the classroom and in the workplace. My learners, my own interaction and some great resources have been my classroom and here is what I’ve found out about my learners and myself:

In his plenary speech at BeSig 2010, Mark Powell talks about two low level engineers he was teaching who couldn’t speak English but managed to do a business deal during lunch. This was an important moment for him, and, listening to him, I started seriously thinking. Although they couldn’t speak English, they could speak ‘engineering’ and they communicated on that level. The langauge was secondary to the meaning. They shared meaning and did business on that alone.

I have seen this in my own classes many times. Recently, we placed an Italian CFO and a French production manager together because they had very similar communicative abilities. I hate to say that they were the same ‘level’ but that’s how they were grouped. The group was a disaster and we eventually had to separate them and give both clients one to one classes.

Reflecting on this incident, I’m drawn to how I observed these two learners behave in break and social time and critically, who they associated with. The financier spent his time with another financier, a German insurance manager, and the engineer seemed happiest in the company of a Russian quality control manager. These two learners had purchased individual tuition and both had very high communicative ability. However, despite having a much stronger grasp of English than their peers, they also seemed comfortable in the communicative relationship.

Now, despite being one example, this episode raises an interesting question. For effective interaction, do people need effective general communication skills or do they need shared meaning?

In his excellent IATEFL 2011 talk, Even Frendo talks about ‘discourse communities’, making the point that the job of professional English training is to help people who are not members of a specific community join it. There are multiple reasons for lack of access to the community, and lack of language ability is definitely one of these,
but there are also a wide range of other issues. Central to this is shared meaning. Does the group I’m trying to join understand things in the same way as me. Metaphor is also critical, how does the target group view the world and how is this interpretation communicated? This is similar to the cultural aspects of communication in my last post. Finally, it’s important to consider how you communicate and how this style will be perceived by the target group. As someone still learning the management ropes, I can say that this point is central to all communication, not just other language.

In his BeSig talk, Mark Powell talks about ‘English Just in Time’ (EJT), saying that the majority of professional learners should be focused on language that will have an immediate effect on their workplace communication. I completely agree with this. He contrasts this with the majority of business English teaching, calling it ‘English Just in Case’ (EJC) and comparing it with general English teaching, where a large amount of language is taught for no particular reason. His argument, which I support, is to strip down the language we teach in order to ensure we provide learners with the language that enables them to achieve maximum workplace results. Using the VOICE corpus, Mark goes on to demonstrate how language traditionally taught is actually insignificant in native and non native business talk and urges us to teach language that is significant. I won’t go into any more detail as you can watch the video yourself.

However, despite agreeing wholeheartedly with Mark, I can see some significant problems with implementing this in the classroom. In fact, I encountered some when I tentatively tried to do so this week.

In another great IATEFL talk, Steve Flinders and Ian McMasters from York Associates stated ‘ … the learners have hijacked the agenda’ when referring to learner obsession with grammar and vocabulary. Again, I completely agree with this but any attempt to refocus learner attention on communicative tasks such as giving feedback or showing empathy, both advocated in this talk, is likely to be met with resistance. I encountered this earlier in the week when a class who wanted to increase their confidence in meetings and conference calls kept drawing lessons back to grammatical and vocabulary accuracy. Although I feel this is less useful for them than considering how others communicate, as a learner focussed teacher, I must respond to their need. I also think that the approach advocated by York Associates, although pedagogically valid, runs the risk of polarising teacher – learner viewpoints of learning.

I’m also convinced by Evan’s argument that ESP teachers should focus on the discourse community their learners wish to join and base their lessons on examples from this community. I can see myself doing this much more extensively in the future but also find this approach extremely problematic for many trainers. In my context, I often represent one week of my learners’ lives and the other stakeholders are far removed, usually in distant countries. Therefore, the type of information gathering Evan promotes in his recent BeSig blog is difficult to obtain due to reasons of trust, accessibility and accountability. I agree that there’s huge amounts of academic research one can do to help identify with the learner’s discourse community and I’m already beginning to do this.

However, as an academic manager, I have my own stakeholders to consider. The preparation Evan promotes takes a huge amount of time effort, and knowledge. I’m very motivated and committed to a career in ESP but many of my teachers aren’t. They have other lives, other motivations and do not have the patience or ability to do this research. I understand and don’t expect them to but would like to think that my efforts can be used to help them in the classroom.

Going back to a DOGME approach, I think there’s lots to be said about using the learners’ lives and language. In my opinion, the learners I meet are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, the discourse community they need to join and why they fail to achieve entry. Unfortunately, this is often subconscious and is vocalised in vague notions such as;

‘Their accent is very difficult to understand’
‘They speak English better than me’
‘They go very fast and by the time I know what I want to say the conversation’s moved on’
‘I don’t have the words’
(All learner quotes from this week)

The idea that I’ve begun to play with is a series of frameworks that help learners analyse their own discourse community and identify areas where they are struggling to join. Then lessons can focus on these areas, whatever they are and provide practical input. This is still in a very experimental stage so no more here.

Finally, I’ve noticed that my learners who’re living and working in the UK already do this for themselves. Whereas people from other countries generally identify extremely general communication problems, these learners often come to me with questions about specific interactions, language used in a specific situations or the problems they have understanding a particular person. This last point does often refer to accent but often also takes the form of a discussion of gender, background and education, making me wonder again whether the problem is only language based or whether misunderstanding comes from lack of shared meaning?

Well, that’s kind of it this week and I can’t go further at the moment without beginning to repeat myself. I trust that the blogosphere will again help me with the questions posed here and I’m looking forward to your comments, as well as still wondering if I’ll get any 🙂

Thanks for reading!


Mark Powell, BeSig 2010 Plenary Speech, Read more…